Coming to Terms with the “F Word”
| September 23, 2009
At this year’s annual Omega women’s conference in Rhinebeck, New York, participants reached across generations to empower themselves and their communities. The authors spoke to two of the younger “trailblazers.”
Charreah Jackson, 24, an African American journalist, and Alberta Nells, 19, a Navajo youth activist, sat in the audience at Omega Institute’s Women & Power Conference recently and listened to artist-philanthropist Sarah Peter describe her first encounter with the “F word.” Not the unprintable one—the “feminist” one.
Charreah Jackson and Alberta Nells are both intelligent and articulate young women, and neither would define herself as a feminist.
Jackson was raised in Atlanta by her divorced mother, a teacher. Now an associate editor at Essence magazine in New York, Charreah writes profiles and blogs on relationships.
“Because I grew up so conscious of my racial side, I didn’t always embrace all of my differences as a woman… And it wasn’t until college or shortly after college that I attended a conference, and I was surrounded by feminists, women who had broken so much ground in the field of journalism.” She said she always was pro-woman and found out at the Journalism and Women Symposium (JAWS) “I was a feminist without knowing it.”
Alberta Nells grew up on a Navajo reservation outside Flagstaff, Arizona. Raised in the Dine tradition, she became a youth activist when the U.S.
Forest Service moved to expand a ski development on a mountain that is sacred to Alberta’s people.
“We’re helping to protect one of our sacred mountains, and we call it our mother, our grandmother. So in a way we’re helping another woman through her struggle, her destruction.”
For Nells, growing up in a traditional Native American family, feminism had little relevance. “I didn’t know what feminism really means, I didn’t grow up around it. The way that we pray for things, both male and female, within the plants, within our sacred fires, within the homes–our teaching is that we have to have a balance of both male and female, even within ourselves.
“I think that there’s a stereotype out there saying that most Native American cultures are male-dominated, just because they see the stoic Indian man chief, but really behind that there’s always some sort of council of women.”
Gloria Steinem, who also spoke at the Omega conference, points out that even though the Iroquois Confederacy was the model for the U.S. Constitution, the framers ignored the fact that Iroquois female elders chose the chief, could depose the chief, and even controlled their own fertility.
Despite the fact that neither Jackson nor Nells self-identify as feminists, both are highly aware of issues that women in their communities face today. Jackson cites the fact that African American women have the fastest growing rate of HIV/AIDS and that the more highly educated among black women are less likely to be married and have children.
“Just the breakdown of the black family is huge–it impacts everything else. We have to be able to come together and build strong communities, and strong communities are strong families,” says Jackson. “And strong families start from a strong couple.
To build such units, she says, is “sort of fusing our masculine and feminine, embracing both, and having both sexes free to do that. It’s great to empower ourselves, but we have to find a way to have this conversation with our dads or our boyfriends.”
Nells explains that Native American women are twice as likely as any other minority group to be stalked, raped or sexually abused.
“We’re only one percent of America’s population, but yet we’re twice as likely to be victims of those things. And around eighty percent [of the abuse] is done by non-Native Americans. It’s very scary.
“There are women taking action to help these abused women,” she adds, “but I wouldn’t know if they would call themselves feminists. What is the word ‘feminism’? You know, one sister helping another is just family, that’s what it is.”
For Nells, the bottom line is a deep faith in the spiritual traditions of her culture, and its power to guide her people to a better life. “My wish for myself, for my people, is for our sacred places to not be under threat. For the San Francisco Peaks to be in danger no longer. And I want that mountain to be as beautiful and as pure as it is now, so that the next generation of people won’t be lost, that they can go to a place that can embrace them as a parent or grandparent would.” She wishes “for the prayers to never stop, so we can grow to be healthy people again. So we can fight diabetes, domestic violence, substance abuse, and that we can go back to our traditional ways, living the balance of health and happiness.”
Jackson notes: “Of course we’re different, but we are much the same. So even though Alberta’s nineteen and fighting for mountains for her tribe–I can relate to that story. My heart is warmed by that.
“Because as an African American woman, having my story quilted into this larger, international story of women, creates a stronger sense of awareness for me and a stronger sense of being connected. Call it what you want, but we’re all fighting toward the same thing. We’re empowering women.”
For more information on Omega Institute’s Women & Power: Connecting Across the Generations conference, including extended interviews with Charreah Jackson and Alberta Nells, click here.